I had a good friend a while ago, although we have fallen out of touch now. He, his wife, and kids welcomed me into their family like a near relative: not a distant one that smells funny, but a favorite uncle; maybe cousin would be better. He was a Orthodox clergyman, although he has since left all religion behind and moved on to other things. We would sit in the basement rec room, he, his wife, and I, after the kids had gone to bed and talk, over too many cigarettes and bottles of Yuengling or Bud, way into the night. That’s the sort of friend I love deeply, although cigarettes are not a thing for me any more, nor, really, beer drinking into the wee hours. It’s a college thing, really: and as one gets older it should be replaced by a pipe and some whiskey, I think, but I digress.
One night in our reflections, he shared with me something that has come to be nearly a mantra in my middle aged life. As he was lighting a cigarette he said, over the Zippo, “You always only meet the good party in a divorce.”
Here’s what he meant. Let us say you have a coworker with whom you share a cubicle pod: not a close friend, but just someone you know. Imagine this party comes to work one day visibly shaken to the core, not able to concentrate, nor do anything else, really. And since you’re coworkers and they are “in your space” all the time, your human compassion reaches out and you say, “want to get a coffee?” As you walk to the coffee machine you ask, “What’s up?” And you find out their spouse has asked for a divorce. And, over the next few weeks, bits and pieces come out – events during or after the marriage, even “warning signs during the dating stage”, or “the lawyer called today” – and you begin to get a clear picture of what happened. The spouse – even the one asking for the divorce – was abusive, clearly has been angling to get a divorce for some time, maybe even trying to goad your friend into asking for it. Finally the filing was, itself, just more emotional abuse. Why could not this be going any easier? How much your coworker – and you – are being made to suffer by this real jerk! And on it goes. You begin to feel as your friend feels: of course the other party is abusive, of course your friend shouldn’t be treated thus. Naturally, my friend will be awarded custody and child support. Of course the other party should be banished to the outer darkness! Morning coffee begins with, “What did the Jerk do to you now?” just as easily as it used to begin in silence.
As you listen, you never realize that maybe the other party has a side as well. It never dawns on you that possibly the argument you’re hearing is one-sided, not 100% true, or, not 100% of the story. Relationships nearly never fail from one side only, nor from one act only. Love stays a two-way street, even when it’s falling apart. Your perception of the spouse is ruined without you ever having met them. You’ve judged them before you even get around to seeing there’s a person there. They are going to be “that Jerk” for ever.
This is has become my mantra because it is perhaps the most universally applicable thing any clergyman has ever said to me. It is true in divorce cases, of course. But it is equally true in stories about your friend losing her job, in stories about your buddy dropping out of his school, about your clergyman leaving the Church, about your company laying off people, about your parish leaving your jurisdiction, etc. There is always another side that you have not heard because, well: we listen to our friends.
It is, in fact, equally true over political situations: wars are nearly never 100% one side’s fault – and which side is “really to blame” is usually decided by which side my house is on or who the winner is. The real cause of a war, or a party squabble, or breakdown in trade negotiations, whatever, is never made clear. One part of the problems leading up to WW2 was, nostra maxima culpa, the inability of the victors in WW1 to be gracious; or, later, to be forgiving of debt. This gave rise to a reaction formation that resulted in great evil. Luckily, this was a lesson we largely understood before the end of WW2: if, in 1945, the USA had treated Japan as the French had treated Germany in 1918, we might have had a very different second half of the 20th century. When the kids come home from school and tell you how Mrs So-and-so treats them in third period, don’t you want to go down there and tell that teacher a thing or two? When the guy at the bar tells you how his boss treated him that day, don’t you say to yourself, “Who would stay at a job like that?” When your neighbor tells you how they shat upon her most recent Customer Service call to the Cable Company, or standing in line at the DMV, or trying to resolve a Credit Card issue at the bank… how evil the whole world is but you and your friends. How can anyone survive such gross injustice?
“You always only meet the good party in a divorce.”
Someplace, there is another coworker hearing the same story from the other side and your friend is being made out to be the bad guy. Trust me, it is 100% true. Your friend, your coworker, your neighbor, your country is being made out to be the aggressive and injuring partner. And that jerk, that evil person, that ass you’ve never met, is the wounded lover, the jilted party, the abused, the forlorn. What would you do hearing the other side of the story rather than the side you heard? What would you do if, ten years hence, you met someone at a party and, hanging out, drinking, maybe even dating, you discovered this was the the total jerk your coworker had told you about? “Wait, she’s totally nice. Maybe my friend was wrong?”
What I learn is that, as long as we’re dealing with human beings, 100% of the time there is no human party that is 100% right or wrong. Human beings are like that. We’re complicated, messed up, broken. Any time there are human beings involved, there is always another human side in a more-complicated story than we want to hear.
Mind you: I don’t know who is right or wrong in the story you’re hearing. I note only that there is another side that is, most likely, equally as right or wrong in the grand scheme of things as the one you’re hearing. Mind you, I’m not arguing for moral relativism here. Nothing can explain away what happened in the Shoah. But equally, nothing can explain away what happened in Japanese-American internment camps, nor the destructions of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Nothing can explain away what Soviets did to Christians after the Revolution. But, equally, nothing can explain away what the elite classes of Russia did – with the full support of the Church – to the poor, to the Jews, to the Muslims of Russia. There are always grey areas when humans are involved.
As in war, so in school yard fights, even in church schisms, you always only meet the good party in a divorce.